Planeing for the senses

Reinhold Öxler, Ning Huang

In a digital world, too much is paradoxically demanded of the senses of children in a one-sided way. In the visual and acoustic field, in particular, they are confronted at much too early an age with non-age appropriate information. This flood of secondary experiences often leads to addictive behaviour which is expressed in children avoiding intellectual and physical effort. Lack of concentration as well as coordination and attention deficits are the consequence. Woodwork lessons are a wonderful antidote for this type of paralysis of the will.

All twelve senses are practiced and trained through artistic woodworking activity so that we can learn to experience and perceive the environment and world “anew” through the body and above all the hands – something we discuss here using the example of planeing and sawing as part of the woodwork main lesson in class 9.

Fine adjustment

When we plane a piece of wood, we first have to wedge the razor-sharp blade precisely into the plane. The extent to which the blade protrudes beyond the base of the plane has to be adjusted by eye to tenths of a millimetre. There are no measuring instruments for this which could be used as an aid. Our sense of vision becomes our sense of touch which is able to make a judgement consisting of tenths of a millimetre; the judgement of our eye is trained.

 When planeing, the left hand pushes down while the right hand and right leg push forward and the momentum drives the left leg to make a step forward. The pupils can feel through the plane itself whether the blade takes off the shaving in the right way. They can even hear it in the tone: the higher the tone, the thinner the shaving and vice versa. If there is a brief interruption of the tone and a lack of resistance, the shaving will break off, it is no longer nicely curled all the way through.

Not only can we hear with our ears but also see and taste with them. Following on from a lecture by Rudolf Steiner of 20 December 1920 about the nature of musicality, Klaus Charisius, woodwork teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf school in Stuttgart, formulated the thought that this sense of hearing can be refined to such an extent that one can hear the wood when making an instrument. Steiner advised instrument makers that they should investigate how trees dealt with the fluid element, then they could experience which woods were suitable for which instruments in line with the behaviour of their sound.

Working up a sweat

The motion during planeing does not just train the sense of movement. The piece of wood for the woodwork main lesson is almost one-and-a-half metres long. The first thing that is required is to stand properly on one’s feet (sense of balance) and proper instruction must be given beforehand about the coordination between hands and arms. Because every muscle is used for planeing. It is only the sense of balance which enables us to get into a regular rhythm. Planeing works up a sweat. No question that the sense of warmth is also activated. Many boys experience this work like a fitness studio: they feel their maleness, the power of their muscles – and the ache in their muscles. At this age the growth of the bones has proceeded faster than the growth of the muscles. This “training” helps to experience the laws that govern our body, the world, the workpiece and the tool and to learn to handle them.

When in class 9 we take ourselves to periods which have long passed, in which “real men” sawed planks out of whole tree trunks by hand with a head saw in order to build houses, furniture and equipment, the enthusiasm of the pupils knows no bounds. The sweatshirts come off – or at least the sleeves are rolled up – and the planks are trimmed with a hand saw until a real steam is worked up in the workshop. Being able to work to the precision of a tenth of a millimetre only increases the feeling of being alive.

Resinous chewing gum and noble woods

When planeing pine planks, a pleasantly tangy smell of resin spreads through the workshop. If the teacher just happens to chew on a wafer thin wood shaving, that is registered by the pupils and the bitter taste as well as the resistance in chewing is experienced as a challenge.

When the woodwork teacher in his or her introduction mentions the ancient names of tools and woods, when he or she makes reference to old processes from previous cultures and at the same time gives things to the pupils which they can touch, look at, smell and tap, these concepts are given new meaning. The language has a real relationship with the material that is being worked on.

Speaking is accompanied by meaningful and precise gestures. Each classic tool is accompanied by “didactic” body language and instructions from the teacher. Then the preparation of the wood with precision to tenths of a millimetre is demonstrated in detail. The wood is ennobled through the craftsmanship and the “craftsman’s honour” is bestowed on the craftsman, hence the title “Master”.

I plane, therefore I am

If we want to obtain a flat surface, we always have to think and imagine it in concave and convex terms. When dovetailing, we have to concern ourselves with the rules of joining wood together both in thinking ahead and in reflection in order then to be able to draw the outline precisely and without mistakes. Then the pupil has to trust his outline (drawing). The correct hand position and stance are necessary in order to be able to saw out the three-dimensionally drawn wood join.  

Each push of the saw requires the absolute presence of the I, when pulling the saw back we can see whether and to which side the wrist has to be subtly adjusted for the next push. The pupils keep having to modify their judgement (action in the present) in looking back (past) and looking ahead (future).  

The sense of I enables an understanding which is directed at the individuality of our counterpart. Enthusiasm and physical challenge train our will almost as if by accident, allowing the young person to keep on working. In perceiving their own work and the work of others, or in being corrected by the “master”, it is not only their will but also their social competence which is being trained.  

When at the end of the main lesson rough planks have turned into beautiful pieces of furniture, it is a special feeling to have made something meaningful for everyday life.

It is an objective experience for ourselves and all the others who were also involved which everyone can understand and evaluate.  

About the authors: Reinhold Öxler is a woodwork teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Free Waldorf School in Stuttgart and a member of the woodwork teachers’ working group in the German Waldorf Schools Association.

Ning Huang works at the Merz school in Stuttgart and at Hohenheim University. She is currently undertaking advanced training in “wood sculpture” with Reinhold Öxler.